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Monday, June 30, 2014

Concert Review: Nothing But Beethoven

The Philharmonic ends their season with farewells.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert (left) with pianist Yefim Bronfman.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2014 The New York Philharmonic.
The New York Philharmonic's concerts last week were more than just the climax of the 2013-14 season--they marked a major turning point in the history of the United States' oldest orchestra.  They were the departure of two key Philharmonic artists: principal trumpet Philip Smith and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, whose 34-year tenure in that position is the longest in the Philharmonic's history.

This concert series (seen Thursday, June 25) was also the term-ender for 2013-14 artist-in-residence Yefim Bronfman, and the finale of a three-week Philharmonic festival The Beethoven Concertos. Although the first two programs featured modern works by prize-winning and living composers, all traces of modernity were jettisoned in favor of a pairing of the Triple Concerto with the Piano Concerto No. 5, which has been nicknamed the Emperor ever since the Napoleonic Wars.

Beethoven wrote only one opera (Fidelio) but there is something operatic about this Concerto, especially as the violin and cello intertwine and trade melodic lines in a manner distinctly reminiscent of an opera duet. In fact, this work has some of Beethoven's sweetest and most melodious writing, and it is is minor crime that it remains a relative rarity in performance. It belongs in the same vein as good-humored Beethoven symphonies like the Fourth and Eighth, and its sunny demeanor should not relegate the Triple to minor status.

For this performance, an all-star concertino was formed by Mr. Dicterow, Mr. Bronfman, and principal Philharmonic cellist Carter Brey, whose instrument has the most prominent part of the little ensemble. The trio's preparation and familiarity with each other was apparent in their easy chamber-music rapport. Mr. Dicterow's acerbic, slightly dry violin, Mr. Brey's warm cello tone and Mr. Bronfman's powerful, yet agile playing traded off smoothly against the orchestra under the baton of Alan Gilbert.

The nickname of the Emperor Concerto may not have pleased Beethoven, but there is little doubt that this is the reigning heavyweight of his five piano concertos. Beethoven built this work on a heroic scale, indulging in his middle-period obsession with expanding small motifs to heroic proportions, and the orchestral accompaniment reflects this with some of the choicest passages--particularly the horn solos--reserved for the ensemble.

In this performance, the enormous first movement--twice as long as the other two put together--and  unrolled with carefully ordered logic, never seeming overwrought or over-long despite clocking in at over twenty minutes. Mr. Gilbert led a taut accompaniment in the first movement. Playing Beethoven's own and challenging cadenzas (the work was written well into the composer's deafness) allowed for eloquent expression and commentary from Mr. Bronfman, especially as the solo part planted melodic seeds that would bear fruit in the last two movements.

The orchestral part of the second movement is expansive and slow, perhaps a little too much of each under Mr. Gilbert. However, Mr. Bronfman was able to create poetry in these wide open spaces, giving voice to eloquent thoughts before the sudden transition to the final rondo. Mr. Bronfman took firm charge in the final movement, tossing off easy cadenzas and further melodic gifts with a combination of grace and reserved power that is this artist's trademark. In a music business increasingly preoccupied with dazzle and slam-bang pianism, a sober and carefully judged performance like this one is all the more valued.

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